Teresa M. Bejan+ Your Authors @tmbejan Prof @Politics_Oxford of Political Theory & author of Mere Civility (HUP, 2017; paperback, 2019) bit.ly/MereCivility Jul. 16, 2020 4 min read + Your Authors

1/ It’s also worth asking today: what exactly makes speech “free”?

2/ The sense in play in the current debate about ‘cancel culture‘ is that of parrhesia. In Greek, it means literally “saying it all”—that is, speaking one’s mind, what one likes, when one likes, and to whom.

3/ Parrhesiastic speech is thus ‘free’ in the sense of being freely or frankly spoken, without fear or favor towards one’s audience and how they might react.

4/ It’s opposite isn‘t just silence, but *unfree* speech—flattery, hypocrisy, dishonestly telling the audience what they want to hear and only that.

A society without parrhesia is thus a society of “yes”-men ruled by an overwhelming norm of conformity.

5/ So in order to enjoy “free speech“, one needs not only to enjoy the legal right to speak and its material conditions (a voice, a platform, an audience). One also needs to be able to *trust* one’s audience to be tolerant when it comes to things they don’t want to hear.

6/ Historically, audiences (large audiences, especially) have not been very tolerant. And parrhesia has been dangerous. It didn’t go so well for Socrates, to take one famous example.

Imagine him on Twitter.

7/ The old idea that free speech in the sense of parrhesia therefore requires extraordinary courage is captured in Foucault’s phrase “fearless speech,” and the Quaker dictum, “speaking truth to power.”

8/ John Stuart Mill had Socrates’ punishment for parrhesia in mind when he wrote in On Liberty that the freedom of thought and discussion should be “absolute.”

But what did he mean by this?

9/ Well, one thing he meant is that parrhesia should be made much, much less dangerous. And the danger Mill feared most did NOT come from the state.

The legal right alone does not make speech “free.”

10/ The greatest threat was rather what Mill called “social tyranny”—namely, the intolerance of the audience and their desire to punish speech and speakers they disliked.

11/ That punishment didn’t come in the form of a muzzle or a jail cell. Rather, it came in the form of economic and social sanctions. Calls for the speaker to be fired, say, or investigated by their employer; demands that they should be socially shunned or harassed.

12/ These punishments were informal and extra-legal. They fell short of hemlock. But they could be brutal all the same.

13/ Mill was wrong about a lot, but he was right about this: the legal right to free speech is insufficient to protect parrhesia, and parrhesia is valuable. We must therefore cultivate a culture that tolerates disagreeable speech.

14/ We must do this *not* because we value the disagreeable speech as such, let alone its content. But because the alternative is a brutalizing and conformist culture of fear in which the weak, vulnerable, and unpopular suffer most.

15/ Which brings me to the latest fracas: @bariweiss, @jk_rowling, etc. are not wrong to complain that their free speech is being infringed.

They’re talking about parrhesia...and they’re right!

16/ Just because they have (or once had) secure employment, large audiences, and a much bigger platform than most does not mean that are free from pressure to say what their audiences, friends, or co-workers want to hear.

17/ Nor does it mean that they are free from the threat of economic or social sanctions (including sexist abuse) when they don’t.

Those sanctions are, indeed, the product of other people’s “free and frank” speech.

18/ But to point this out isn’t to refute Rowling et al.—Mill’s point was that using my free speech to call for someone to be fired or harassed because I dislike what they’ve said is still a violation of their right, and an abuse of my own.

19/ Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s right.

Rowling, Weiss, et al., are therefore reasonable to fear that they can no longer speak their minds *freely* or *frankly* without suffering abuse.

Women, especially, are often under social pressure to be “agreeable.”

20/ If you dislike what these women have to say, you might think that’s a Good Thing.

But consider this:

19/ If they feel that way, imagine how people with much less fame, education, job security, etc. feel.

Imagine how young people feel, who are trying to work out what it is they think in the first place and often learn best by thinking aloud.

20/ My own view is that free speech in the sense of parrhesia is under threat, and that this is a Bad Thing, especially when it comes to education.

Many people disagree with me, and that’s ok. I’m working hard to understand their arguments.

21/ But my sense is that much of the critical response to complaints about “cancel culture” is missing the point about “free speech” as parrhesia, or speaking freely.

P.S. if you’re interested in excellent historical work on parrhesia free from my questionable political commentary, I highly recommend @Joanne_Paul_‘s scholarship!

And for excellent thoughts on Foucault and Ancient Greece, see @carolatack


You can follow @tmbejan.



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